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Hello friends,

It's the last week of our book club! (Which also means it is somehow, already, the last week of November.) For me, it was tough to put the book down as I got closer to the end. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the last few pages of the book, and to discuss the entirety of Jack with you next week.

This is the last email you'll receive from me prior to our webinar discussion (as a reminder: it's Monday November 30, at 12 PM EST). I've included a few questions and thoughts—grateful to Jeffrey Bilbro, editor over at the Front Porch Republic, for sharing some of his insights below! 

If you have already thought up some questions for next week's panelists, you can send them to me via email. Can't wait to discuss more with you in the days to come.

Best wishes,
Gracy 
essays & questions

FPR editor Jeffrey Bilbro told me in an email that what struck him most, as he finished Jack, "was Jack’s profound and painful awareness of our inescapable mutuality and solidarity. As much as he wanted to be cut off and isolated from others—his family, Della, the 'debt collectors,' etc.—he is always finding himself caught up in the lives of others."

Sometimes Jack's response to this, it appears, is his thievery: "he cannot distinguish between mine and thine," Jeff notes. "Based on a conversation he had with his father, Jack even 'believed [stealing] might be an attempt on his part to weave himself into the emotional fabric of another life' (138). It’s also interesting that at times, he steals objects and then they become the means of honoring another person: the stolen umbrella he lifts over Della and the stolen handkerchief he gives to Julia. This mutuality also lies behind the longing with which he quotes those lines from Milton about how angels love one another: 
Easier then Air with Air, if Spirits embrace,
Total they mix, Union of Pure with Pure
Desiring; nor restrain'd conveyance need
As Flesh to mix with Flesh, or Soul with Soul.
 
While he longs for this, he knows such bodiless love and mutuality is impossible for him. Yet if he can’t enjoy this kind of love, he doesn’t want to have to be obligated by the messy, embodied responsibilities of human love."
  • How do we see Jack struggle with the messy vulnerability of love throughout the book? How does he change as the novel draws to a close? 
     
  • On page 244, Jack admits to us that "Slick"—an identity he's created through his posture and dress, his way of speaking and looking—is "a false but telling testimony against himself, an attempt to look hard because he was not, wise in the ways of the streets because he was not, dissolute because this could not be helped, anyway."

    Of all the names (and thus identities) Jack gives himself—Slick, "Prince of Darkness," John Ames, John Boughton, Jack—which do you actually think he embraces in the end? 

     
  • "Despite his aspiration to harmlessness, Jack also seems to have a sense that harmlessness is impossible," Jeff notes. "At his most clear-eyed moments, he recognizes he has no choice but to live a meaningful life." Do you think this is why Jack goes to Chicago—or is Chicago, in fact, Jack's last temptation to embrace noise, meaninglessness, and harmlessness?

In the novel Gilead—which is set in the future—John Ames has a long talk with Jack. In that section of the novel, Ames tells Jack, 'Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm."

"I like to think that Jack returning to Della’s home and committing himself to honor her loyalty and love—despite all the obstacles and uncertainty—demonstrates he has learned that he must aspire not to harmlessness but to love," Jeff suggests. "Despite his wish to be isolated and cut off, he is a member of Della’s life and of the lives of all those who love her. And he can no longer do nothing to honor Della."

  • In Chicago, Jack tells his landlady the truth about Della—and acts quickly (even courageously) in response to the landlady's racism and bigotry. It seems as if this could be a turning point in Jack's life, and in the trajectory of the novel: a movement from lies to truth, from passivity to action, from running away from vulnerability to an embrace of his obligations, his need to honor Della. Do you agree or disagree? Is this a moment, perhaps, of "prevenient courage"?
     
  • We know Jack struggles with guilt. On page 238, Robinson writes, "Jack had dabbled in shame, and it still coursed through him, malarial, waking him up to sweat and pace until, unsoothed, unrationalizd, unshriven, it secreted itself again in his bones, and at the base of his skull, and was latent except for the occasional leering strangeness of his dreams." How does this struggle with shame shape Jack's character, his relationship with Della? Does Robinson offer any answers in this book as to how we are to deal with our own shame, or how it can be conquered? 
In a review of Jack for The Guardian, Sarah Perry suggests that this novel "is a Calvinist romance," "set against a contemporary fondness for novels that deal pessimistically with an individual psychology, unloosed from any philosophical or religious foundation beyond a little light politics or feminism..." In contrast to these things, Perry writes, Robinson is concerned with "common grace"—"the capacity shared by all human creatures for receiving the gifts of life with wonder and gratitude, quite irrespective of belief or unbelief in God."

"Jack’s task is to discover whether his father’s doctrines may after all not crush the love that arrived, unasked and unwanted, in a graveyard, but in fact elevate it to evidence of the divine," Perry writes.
  • As the novel draws to a close, what do you think Jack believes about God—and about himself? What might it suggest about Jack's spiritual journey, the possibilities for redemption or irredeemability in his own life?
     
  • If you've read other novels by Robinson—what new or different perceptions of Jack did you get from this book? How did it shape your understanding of Robinson's other Gilead books? Which did you find yourself comparing/contrasting this book to most?
I grew up in rural Idaho, and now live in Northern Virginia. I have written for The American Conservative, The Week, New York Times, Washington Post, National Review, Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, and others. To quote C.S. Lewis, "You'll never find a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
 
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Copyright © 2020 Gracy Olmstead, All rights reserved.